Brian Beattie came up with a unique way to start each show on his latest tours. Before he plays songs from his concept album/musical Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase (Earmovie Music, 2014), he recites an 8-minute epic poem describing the main character's backstory. The Austin, Texas-based musician-producer admitted taking a perverse pleasure in how the poem surprises audiences.
"I just have so much fun," Beattie said, chuckling. "Because I want it to be entertaining and everything, and [the album] is sort of like an adventurous, epic poem kind of thing. People don't expect that."
Ivy has surprised and delighted a number of listeners since its release in January 2014. The self-described "movie for your ears"—which features performances by Daniel Johnston, Bill Callahan, Okkervil River's Will Sheff and others—was named the best Austin album of the year by The Austin Chronicle's Greg Beets. Pitchfork's Jason Heller declared that "the scale, ambition and mad joy of creation behind Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase is well worth the immersion—and the imagination—needed to experience it."
Boiseans will get to experience it when Beattie brings Ivy to The Crux on Thursday, Feb. 26. (Local acts Wooden Feels and Addam Chavarria open). His set will feature "crankies"—scrolls illustrating scenes from the story—designed and operated by his wife, artist Valerie Fowler. Locals Wooden Feels and Addam Chavarria will open.
With songs that mix blues, country, rock, Tin Pan Alley pop and other genres, Ivy tells the story of Ivy Wire, a 10 year-old girl living in Texas in 1938. When the bank threatens to foreclose on her family's farm, Ivy journeys through Heaven and Hell to find a wicker suitcase full of money that was lost when her no-account father (played by country-western singer James Hand) died. Along the way, she gets into a singing-songwriting contest with "The Big Boss," aka the devil (played by Daniel Johnston), and plays rock-paper-scissors with "Everything," aka God (played by Bill Callahan).
In music and spirit, Ivy reflects Beattie's vision of Austin, where he has lived since 1979.
"Austin is so many different things," Beattie said. "People who write about Austin in Austin, the thing they think it is has always been different from what I've thought it was. The thing that people from outside of Austin think about Austin is different from what I think it is. Mostly, it's just like any town that's nice. ... There's a friendly kind of attitude about people who like to be in a place that has a few more trees than a lot of other Texas cities."
This modest, friendly attitude comes through in Ivy's genial whimsy. Beattie turns the mythological three-headed beast Cerberus into Mr. Kirby, Hell's harried chief admissions officer (played by Will Sheff). Johnston's endearing quirkiness undercuts The Big Boss's menace and hubris. Callahan's Everything is a somnolent goof—Ivy's arrival in Heaven wakes Him up from a nap.
Beattie drew inspiration for Ivy from a few different sources. One was a childhood nightmare involving a deserted carnival, which Beattie used as the basis for the song "Ivy's Dream." Beattie also became fascinated with Depression-era movie musicals after the stock market crashed in 2008.
One of the biggest catalysts, though, was meeting Grace London, a 14 year-old musician and friend of Beattie's daughter. Beattie first heard London sing at an elementary school talent show when she was 9.
"She had all the depth of casual singing and real hollering," Beattie said. "Absolutely in a casual way—no thought involved in the joy of singing. I couldn't believe it."
Beattie changed the protagonist of his story to a girl and made her a precocious musician. Once he'd finished the script for Ivy, he showed it to London, who agreed to take the lead role. London makes a perfect Ivy: her vocals have the strength and assurance of a performer twice or three times her age.
Ivy pulls together other threads from Beattie's life and career in Austin. In addition to the live show's crankies, Fowler designed a 64-page book of illustrations that supplements the album. Beattie persuaded Sheff, Johnston and Callahan to contribute their efforts thanks to his work producing, engineering and mixing albums for them in the past. Ivy also features performances from Kathy McCarty and Scott Marcus, who played with Beattie in the '80s-'90s post-punk band Glass Eye.
Beattie spent five years developing and perfecting the sound effects that give Ivy its cinematic feel. Performing solo presents a new set of challenges—prior to this album, he'd never sung much on his own—but a dream he had keeps him going.
"There was an annoying teenager in the dream that was really smug and self-assured," he said. "He told me that if I wanted to live a lot longer, I should sing a lot more. And I was so annoyed at that annoying, smug teenager that ever since then, I've sung a lot more."